Tuesday, 2 August 2005

Crash Deluxe

Marianne de Pierres
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-258-2

The Tert, slum-town on the edge of the shining city of Viva, is once again at peace – or as close as it ever manages to get, anyway. Following her discovery and destruction of twisted genetic experiments in MoVay, Parrish Plessis is one step closer to the truth. Someone in the big city has been playing games, manipulating the lives of the Tert’s citizens for their own ends. Too many people have died as a result, people Parrish cared about, and even worse – this meddling has released the Eskaalim parasite, long dormant in humanity’s genes, and its terrible effects are already being felt.

Whoever is playing god, they need to be stopped. The people of the Tert deserve better than to be some rich kid’s playthings, and Parrish needs to start thinking about how to defeat the parasite that is slowly turning her into something dark and monstrous. Time is running out, and she needs to find the one responsible. Infiltrating Viva is the only way. Time to find out what civilisation is like. Parrish doesn’t know what to expect from the big city, but then it doesn’t know what to expect from her. It could be an interesting day…

Unlike the previous novels, Crash Deluxe begins with a flash forward to its own climax, an intriguing little narrative device which whets the reader’s appetite and curiosity. Just as well really, for that burst of action is followed by an opening sequence that fails to generate much interest. Parrish wanders around the Tert at something of a loss, knowing what she has to do but for some reason finding a dozen reasons to put it off.

This build-up may be slow, but it does introduce certain facets of De Pierres’ world that have been absent before. Of these the most important is the appearance of virtual reality, a cyberpunk staple that seems strangely out of place in the rough, unsophisticated Tert. Once the action moves to high-tech Viva City things make more sense, but it seems surprising to find the technology suddenly centre-stage. While there is nothing to De Pierres’ VR that hasn’t been seen before, the breathless vibrancy of her writing at least gives it a fresh coat of paint.

Parrish’s insertion into Viva is superbly handled, skilful foreshadowing giving her all the tools she needs without making the situation appear contrived. It is a pleasure, too, to see the Tert’s tough girl so out of her depth, her reactions to an unfamiliar environment comical and tragic. Just when it seems she has fallen on her feet Parrish finds herself in a deeper mess then ever before. Much is made of the differences between Viva’s sophisticated menace and the Tert’s brutal simplicity, giving the novel a feeling oddly reminiscent of Victorian class divides, or perhaps the an extension of the widening gulf between today’s suburbs and inner city areas. Certainly the straightforward Parrish is spectacularly unsuited to deal with Viva’s serpentine intrigues, yet somehow she muddles through.

New characters appear and old ones resurface, yet the author handles them all equally and with deft proficiency. For the most part clich├ęs are conspicuous in their absence, and tough choices are made that grant the novel a gritty darkness it may have lacked before, though thankfully this new-found gloom manages to avoid obscuring Crash Deluxe’s gems of characterisation. The disclosure of the identity of Parrish’s mysterious benefactor is a magnificent sleight-of-hand, pulling a rabbit from the first novel’s hat that seemed little more than background detail. As well as that, the evolution of Parrish’s personality is a subtle marvel, the sacrifices forced upon her making her desperate to hang on to those she cares about yet afraid to hold them too close. While certain details of the main narrative seem unlikely or faintly ridiculous, things move fast enough that such minor holes are often overlooked, gone past in a blur before the reader notices them. But at the heart of Crash Deluxe lies a solid, powerful story, all about choice, and it plays out very well indeed.

Crash Deluxe marks the end of the first trilogy following Parrish Plessis and as such the tying of loose ends is to be expected. It is a pleasant surprise to find this is not overwhelmingly true. While certain mysteries are unravelled and plot arcs completed, there is enough fresh material here to drive at least another book. The novel ends on a massive cliffhanger, a well-executed piece of work which leaves the reader truly unsure of what to expect. While this unfinished ending might frustrate some, it should be enough to keep most readers eager to pick up the story when next Parrish returns. As such, Crash Deluxe will find a place with its fellows on my ‘first-rate cyberpunk’ shelf; I can only hope Marianne De Pierres won’t keep me waiting too long for the next volume.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com